Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Tolkien was more creative; Lewis was more intelligent: Creative Triad aspects of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis


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It is the rare combination of spontaneous creativity with high intelligence and a strong motivation which typically fuels high levels of achievement; the triad is mutually-reinforcing with motivation driving the ability, and creativity providing the intuitive insights which characterize genius.

This is relatively uncontroversial; but what is less appreciated is that creativity is part of a personality type (HJ Eysenck termed it Psychoticism) which exhibits traits regarded as socially undesirable - such as low conscientiousness, impulsivity, independence, wilful stubbornness and eccentricities of various types.

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This can be seen in the life of JRR Tolkien, and to a lesser extent in CS Lewis. Although overall Tolkien and Lewis are quite similar types; Tolkien is a classic creative Genius with a high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism/ i.e. optimal for spontaneous creativity; Lewis was - if anything- even higher in IQ than Tolkien, but lower in Psychoticism/ creativity.

That Tolkien had a very high IQ would not be disputed by those who know of his biography and very rapid ascent to academic eminence; and the reports of those who knew him. High general intelligence is associated with the ability to understand and learn very rapidly, to solve novel problems, and to reason abstractly. Tolkien was always perceived, and from a young age, as extremely quick-witted.

However, I would argue that Tolkien also showed signs of moderately high Psychoticism such as a tendency towards experiencing altered states of consciousness - such as dreams which provided creative ideas or solved problems, mythic dreams of apparent depth and import - sometimes recurrent, and lucid dreaming (i.e. partial awareness of dreaming and control of dreams).

He also demonstrated moderately-low levels of self-discipline and conscientiousness as evidenced by his truly amazing lack of ability to finish projects in which he was not very interested - such as the Clarendon textbook about Chaucer, over which he spent several decades before abandoning unfinished, or the preface to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which could have been finished in a few days but was delayed for about a decade until Tolkien died before publishing it). The new Chronology of Tolkien's life (in the recent JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide) is replete with similar examples.

This trait of moderately low conscientiousness goes back to Tolkien's school days and his early university career where, despite his high intelligence and ability, he took two attempts to achieve a financial award to attend Oxford, and even then failed to get a scholarship but instead attained a lower level of funding called an exhibition.

And his first university course was 'classics' - the conventional highest status Oxford degree, but which did not much interest Tolkien. After failing to be self-disciplined about work and scraping a low second class mark in his first set of classics examinations (and only getting that high a mark due to the philological part of the course - otherwise he would have received a disgraceful 'third'), Tolkien switched to an English degree mostly consisting of his beloved philological studies - and excelled from that point onwards (first class degree), receiving a full Oxford Professorship (the pinnacle of his profession in the UK) at the remarkably early age of 32 (and despite his years of service in the 1914-18 war).

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In other words there is a consistent pattern throughout Tolkien's life of very high achievement when doing things that he loved, combined with a near-inability to do things which he did not love.

This is a classic pattern of moderately-high Psychoticism seen in many (but not all) creative Geniuses - they do _not_ excel at things that do _not_ engage their deepest interest. Another example was Einstein, whose early scholarly career was somewhat mediocre until the point when he could work on exactly that subject which most engaged him. Einstein was of course - par excellence - the epitome of an imaginative, visualizing, intuitive creative genius.

Therefore Tolkien, like many creative geniuses, could work incredibly hard and fast on topics which deeply interested him; but was almost unable to get himself to work on topics which - although he felt a duty to do them - did not interest him deeply.

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To see the difference between a highly intelligent person like Tolkien with moderately high Psychoticism/ high creativity and lowish Conscientiousness; and a person of similar intelligence but with low Psychoticism and high Conscientiousness - one need look no further than his friend CS Lewis.

Lewis was highly conscientious: he could make himself work hard and regular hours even on matters which bored him but which he felt he ought to do - for example correspondence - at which he laboured for about 2 hours per day in later life. Meanwhile Lewis was publishing around a book a year plus scholarly articles and journalism: a vast volume of finished work.

But conscientiousness is inversely correlated with Psychoticism/ creativity. And indeed Lewis was not so creative as Tolkien. He is of course much more creative than most people; but in comparison with Tolkien his fecundity was more a matter of selecting, combining and extrapolating from his vast fund of knowledge.

Because he was so conscientious, Lewis was able to 'make himself' do what was wished of him by other people, what he 'ought' to do. He fitted his creative work into and around these duties. By contrast, Tolkien neglected his duties to a significant extent, due to business and pressure - but nonetheless continued to work on his private writing projects (and even his painting and drawing).

Lewis had a tendency to lapse into pastiche, of pseudo-creativity, manufactured from existing materials; which is evidence of his lower mode of creation (Tolkien by contrast would lapse into bathos - which is more the mark of a first rank creative genius when having an off-day - think of some of Wordsworth's lamest poems, or Longfellow...).

Lewis was highly creative compared with the average; for instance he did have 'visions', or images - from which his fictions often arose (eg the vision of a faun with a parcel which was elaborated into the Narnia books); he suffered badly from nightmares and had insights in dreams  - but Lewis was not in the same league as Tolkien in terms of creative imagination, and the ability deeply to imagine a believable world (believable to the reader and inhabitable by the reader because it was believed and inhabited by the author).

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One can also see this in their poetry - Lewis was a skilled versifier, able to parody and pastiche; but Tolkien was a lyric poet who at times (albeit rarely, like all but the greatest lyric poets) achieved greatness (e.g. Three rings for the elven kings...', or 'Where now the horse and the rider?").

Like other true lyric poets, Tolkien in his own poetic loves focuses on very specific phrases which have a mystical depth and resonance for him, such as "éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended" or "Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað" . This, I take it, is evidence of the highly creative mind, that finds wider associations than usual mortals can discover.

By contrast, Lewis - who was a greater scholar and more productive critic of English Literature than Tolkien - seems to me both to interpret as well as write poetry much more narrowly and literally - more as if it were a technical form of prose (which of course is true of almost all so-called-poetry, almost all of the time - i.e. most soi disant lyric poetry is a kind of manufactured fake, displaying borrowed plumes).

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Tolkien has often been described as if he were a rather dull character who never did much - that is probably most people's take home image from Humphrey Carpenter's biography. A rather typically stuffy and inhibited English Professor of his stuffy and inhibited era. But the truth is far in the opposite direction: JRR Tolkien was an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary mind, and living at an extraordinarily vivid and creative time - he was not just intellectually brilliant but wildly creative.

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What of the relative intelligence of Tolkien and Lewis?

In terms of approximations, general intelligence can roughly be measured in terms of speed of learning and capacity for abstract reasoning.

And in traditional educational systems, where ability is measured in supervised and time limited exams that require on the spot thinking as well as memory, there is a high correlation between exam results and intelligence.

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So, we can compare Tolkien and Lewis head-to-head on examinations.

1. Oxford scholarship examinations. Lewis got a Scholarship (the largest financial award) at the first attempt; but Tolkien only got an Exhibition (a lower level of award) at the second attempt.

2. Both Tolkien and Lewis began by studying the same course (Classics, or Literae Humaniores) at much the same time (Tolkien 'went up' to Oxford in 1911, Lewis in 1917) - in the first set of exams in that course Tolkien (only just) got a second class while Lewis got a First.

3. Tolkien switched his degree to English in which he got a First class degree; Lewis stayed in Classics where he also got a First. But Lewis's L.H. degree was Oxford's oldest and highest-status degree (a four year course) while English was a lower ranked 'upstart' (and a three year course).

And just one year after completing his classics degree, Lewis did the English degree - a three year degree completed in one year - and got yet another First... A Triple First!

So, in youth and early adulthood; all the evidence suggests that Lewis was more intelligent than Tolkien. 

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After this point there is a wide divergence, because Tolkien had a precocious academic career in which - with the assistance of good fortune - a few items of high quality early scholarship led to a very early Oxford Professorship - after which his published productivity declined substantially and was - over all his career - frankly inadequate. From middle age, Tolkien's motivation was increasingly channelled into his personal creative writing - little of which was actually published.

Lewis, on the other hand, published almost nothing except poetry until his mid-thirties and it was not until his late thirties when The Allegory of Love made his academic reputation, after which was unleashed a veritable tidal wave of published scholarship - plus of course the other work in fiction and apologetics for which he became famous among the general public -  and it was not until Lewis's fifties that he became a Professor (in Cambridge).

But Lewis continued to write and to publish prolifically in academic work almost into his sixties and until his death - there was no slackening-off, indeed perhaps an acceleration.

(In contrast to Tolkien Lewis published, or at least made public (in letters and lectures) pretty much everything he wrote.) 

However, these difference are not easily interpretable in terms of intelligence - being more related to conscientiousness (the inverse of Psychoticism).

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The idea that Lewis has higher IQ than Tolkien fits with Lewis being famous for his memory, ability to quote, and swiftness of assertion and response in conceptual argument. Lewis was also more widely read - described as perhaps the best read man in Oxford

Having said that, Lewis did recognize other people as superior in intelligence to himself - for example he certainly regarded the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe as more intelligent than himself.

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So, Tolkien and Lewis were both exceptionally intelligent and both very creative: but Tolkien was more creative and Lewis was more intelligent.

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